by Pat Pepper
This is my first column for the Smith-Gilbert Gardens newsletter. Over the summer I really enjoyed getting to meet many of you who came to my Backyard Birding workshop held on the porch of the Hiram Butler House and out in the gardens.
As many of you know, Smith-Gilbert Gardens is an Audubon Wild Bird Sanctuary because Dr. Gilbert chose many of the plantings based on how well they attracted wild birds. In this column I would like to spotlight a different bird each month. The bird of the month will be one that I have spotted in the gardens during the month of the newsletter’s publication. In this way, you can be on the lookout for this bird as you stroll through the gardens.
For the month of November, I have chosen to spotlight the Northern Mockingbird. As I was walking through the gardens at the beginning of Nov., I was feeling fall migrant let down. Spring (April-May) and fall (Sept.-Oct.) migration, to birders, is analogous to a child’s birthday, Halloween, and Christmas all rolled into one. During this time many species of non-native birds can be found right in our own yards. These birds are just making pit stops on their way to warmer climes in the South (fall migration) or cooler ones in the North (spring migration).
During the months of Sept. and Oct., I had neglected many of my domestic duties to follow up on a Georgia Rare Bird alert—“ Swallow-tailed kites in Gainesville,” was all I needed to jump in my car and head up there. After two months of this frenetic birding (fall migration in Georgia was exceptional this year), I was feeling a bit sad that so many wonderful birds were now gone from our state. Then (as if he could read my thoughts) the beautiful, melodic notes of a male Northern Mockingbird forced me out of my melancholy.
He was standing tall, throat at full throttle, at the very top of the large pecan tree in front of the carriage house in the gardens. He sang as if he was delighted all those pit-stoppers were gone. He now had his territory back to himself. He no longer had to be tolerant of those little hyper-active warblers. He sang as if he wanted me to stop bemoaning the beautiful fly-bys and look and listen to the beauty of what was in my own backyard.
Yes, the Northern Mockingbird is a very common bird in the southern half of the U.S. You now may be wondering why it is called a “Northern” Mockingbird. That is because there are other mockingbirds in the tropics.
As it happens with so many other common things in our lives, we tend to take them for granted. This SGG “mocker” did not intend to be taken for granted.
The Northern Mockingbird is about 10 ½ in. long and is pale gray with white wing patches (mostly visible in flight) and has a long tail. He likes to sing while perched at the very top of trees, roofs, telephone poles, etc. He gets his name, mocking, because he is an expert mimic. Ornithologists have even recorded mocking birds imitating cell phone rings. Mocking birds are related to thrushes and catbirds, both of which will perch in trees and sing quite ably, although to my ears, the mockingbird has the most varied and melodic songs of the three.
If you are out in the gardens, look for this “home boy,” and I hope you will take a few minutes to be serenaded by him. He even will sing all night, especially if the moon is full.